Don’t be a schlong, check out Kong!

kong-skull-island-poster-2After spending the last few months digging into the kaiju TV classic Ultraman, it’s time to shake things up again!  And look, there just happens to be a brand new King Kong movie out this month!  That by itself is more than enough to get me all riled up, but Kong: Skull Island is also the integral next step in Legendary’s shared movie “MonsterVerse“! This movie paves the way for 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters and… (deep breaths, Matt, stay cool, Matt) my most anticipated film of all time, 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, what’s the scoop on this movie? Directed by some indie dramedy guy? Starring Loki, Jules Winnfield, Dr. Steve Brule, and Walter Sobchak? No T-Rex? No Empire State Building? Vietnam War? Is it even a Kong movie at this point? Shit yeah it is, read on to find out how!

Since Skull Island is new hotness, here’s my abridged, spoiler free review I posted on social media opening weekend:

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Thanks for reading, guys! Don’t forget to like and subscraaaaauuugggghh

So that’s it, that’s your spoiler warning! I’m-a sling spoilers like it’s no big deal from here on out, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and care about shit like that, you better go! Just to show I’m serious I’m going to ruin the Guilala cameo that happens in the third act!

Totally a real, legitimate clip from Kong: Skull Island. I bet you’re sorry now!

For real though, I am gonna go full-spoiler madness for the rest of the review. I like to kick off reviews with a trailer, so let’s take a look at Kong’s first one:

Pretty fuckin’ cool, yeah? It’s jam-packed with eye-popping visuals, hints at monsters besides Kong, and leans hard into its Apocalypse Now influences.   It’s a super effective trailer. I wouldn’t say it’s an outright misdirect, but it does focus on certain elements of the movie while pointedly neglecting others.  The second trailer is a lot closer to the movie we actually get:

Fuck yeah! Still looks good to me! The film’s insane eye candy is still present (and then some), those deep dark Apocalypse Now-y character threads are still there, but now they’re accompanied by a lot more Kong, a lot more gonzo monster action, and a lot more dry humor.  It’s an accurate snapshot of the movie that doesn’t give up all the goods.

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And baby, there are some visual goods to give up!

How about the music? Henry Jackman is in charge of the score, and (especially compared to the constant stream of ocular orgasms presented by this movie) it is perfectly adequate.  That’s not meant to be pointedly snarky or anything, it’s just the score is a pretty straight shot down the middle.  It’s solid, monstery stuff that gets gently spiced up with era-appropriate forlorn rock guitars and jungly hammering drums.  My favorite example is Man v. Beast:

You can listen to the whole score here.

I wish Jackman would have dug deeper into those psychedelic early 70s rock veins, but the soundtrack picks up that slack by doubling as the “every Vietnam movie ever” playlist.  Again, that might sound bitchy, but I mean it as a compliment. Overused or not, the music legit kicks ass and serves to ground the movie in a very specific time and place.  Plus when your Vietnam movie revolves around King Kong DDTing Satan-igators, you get a free pass to lean on some of the more traditional genre tropes.

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WARNING: This film takes minor artistic liberties with the details and events of the Vietnam War.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts is in the directormen’s chair, hot off his coming-of-age indie hit The Kings of Summer and well on his way to, no shit, a Metal Gear Solid movie!

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Most of my Metal Gear experience is through Super Smash Bros. Brawl, so I assume the movie will look something like this. Weird lookin’ flick. More Kong?

He’s from Detroit! Yay Michigan! He knows what Faygo Rock’n Rye is! His interview with Slashfilm is a great read: he discusses his influences (which include everything from Platoon to Princess Mononoke), how they shaped Skull Island, and what it was like working with Legendary to develop the movie.  Apparently the original script was set in 1917, Vogt-Roberts counter-pitched his vision of Apocalypse Now+kaiju, and Legendary basically said “hell yeah, we’d watch that movie!”

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Judging by the opening weekend box office, they weren’t the only ones.

Speaking of the movie, let’s jump in! Skull Island opens during World War II, with an American and Japanese pilot parachuting into a weird desert post-dogfight.  Planes be damned, their fight continues! The Japanese pilot is about to slit the throat of the American UNTIL:

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“Guys seriously, cut that shit out, okay?”

They experience an earth-shattering KONGfrontation! It sets the tone for the movie, and it also feels like a direct response to Legendary’s own Godzilla.  I’d say that about the entire movie, actually. Godzilla ’14 teases its titular titan over the course of the film’s running time, whereas Skull Island gives you boatloads of Kong immediately and regularly. I still love Godzilla ’14’s Jaws-style tension-building slow burn approach, but I also really enjoy how structurally different Skull Island gets to be.   They’re two different movies with two different tones.  I think varying themes and tones are a big part of why Marvel’s multi-movie universe works (Captain America, Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy have distinctly different flavors), so I’m glad to see Legendary’s MonsterVerse APING it.

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Originally I had an “I said ‘aping’ not ‘vaping’!” joke here accompanied by a video of a monkey vaping, but the video super bummed me out, so here’s a picture of Kong looking sad instead. Maybe he saw that video too.

The movie skips ahead to 1973: Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his colleagues are desperately calling in their last favor from Washington DC to get their Skull Island expedition up and running.  It’s a funny little world-building scene with Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the WoodsStepbrothers) playing the flustered, “I can’t believe you’re dropping this bullshit on me” senator who reluctantly greenlights their insane operation, complete with a military escort. We get some tasty background on Monarch (including their comical “those guys are fucking bananas” rivalry with SETI), and we get swift introductions to our other leads (with one exception).

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John C. Reilly doesn’t show up until a little later.

Randa and pals recruit Captain James Conrad (Tommy Hidds), a badass survivalist tracker formerly with the British SAS and currently a sly namedrop-reference to the author of Heart of Darkness. I like Tom Hiddleston A-OK and he gets a couple bitchin’ action-guy moments, but Conrad’s a little underwritten and flat.  Comparisons to Godzilla ’14’s dry human protagonist (this one, not this one) are pretty apt, so it’s not really a bad thing that he ultimately gets lost in the strong ensemble cast.

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He gets to do his best 300 impression though! This part is ridonkulous, but in context it only elicits chuckles of bemused enjoyment instead of “WHAT THE FUCK?!” belly-laughs.

The gang is joined by Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a perfectly era-appropriate photojournalist activitist who has a hunch the Skull Island expedition isn’t what it seems. Like Conrad she has a strong intro, is good-looking, and more or less gets left behind by her more interesting co-stars once the movie really gets cooking.  Like Hiddlez, 2015’s Best Actress Academy Award Winner® does a fine job with what the script gives her and gets a couple seriously bad-ass moments too:

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Undeniably gangster. And it’s a (possible) nod to a similar scene in Pacific Rim! I’m a fucking dork!

We meet Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard and the “Sky Devils,” the appropriately bad-ass helicopter squadron he’s in charge of. In his first, quiet scene, we see that Packard is a complex, displaced man.  With the book closing on Vietnam, he’s a warrior without a war, without the chance to win it his way, and with a few too many close friends dead and buried, now seemingly for nothing. This is all expressed nearly wordlessly, because Jackson is a fucking pro and this character is well-realized.

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Don’t mess with his guys.  He doesn’t give a shit if you’re a gigantic monster or not.

During the pre-mission briefing shit gets even shadier/stranger while some funny Nerds vs. Roughnecks tension builds up. It turns out their “geological” survey consists of carpeting the island with uh… science… bombs?  It is suspicious at best, but everybody goes along with the madness, because they know something big is waiting for them on Skull Island.

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GET IT?!?!?!?!?!?!

In this continuity, Skull Island is in the South Pacific, and has stayed hidden thanks to compass-confounding magnetic fields and a perpetual hurricane that wraps around the isolated isle.  The storm looks nasty enough to spook the LandSat eggheads into rescheduling, but Randa is determined to move forward and the Sky Devils are chomping at the bit to fuck shit up.  Choppers flying through the storm is rad looking and provides Skull Island with a fittingly dramatic reveal.

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“Yeah sure, we’ll fly into the dust storm from Fury Road!”

Speaking of Fury Road, Skull Island wisely mimics its best qualities: Both are packed with aggressively beautiful, furiously colorful imagery, both place a premium on well-crafted, gleefully imaginative and chaotic action, and both sport focused plotlines with refreshingly clearcut and immediate stakes.  Both movies also feature an incredible action setpiece early in the film. Fury Road’s desert chase is a masterpiece, and Skull Island’s helicopter assault… well, just look at this shit!

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“Is that a monkey?” is one of the best non-reactions in monster moviedom.

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^MFW watching this scene.

Skull Island’s chopper ambush might not ascend to action movie Valhalla like Fury Road’s… everything, but it’s a goddamn treasure of monster mashing mayhem.  Shot clearly and colorfully, it (thank Christ) avoids shaky-cam fuckery and just gives us the goods (more like greats). It also expertly sets up Kong’s scarily high level of tool-making smarts with the palm tree javelin.  The US dub of King Kong vs. Godzilla made a big fuss about how smart Kong is, but Skull Island seems to be the first flick to actually deliver on that promise, as we’ll (fucking awesomely) see later in the film.

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Spoiler for my spoiler-filled review: at the climax, Kong uses a ship’s propeller like he’s fucking Go Go Yubari! It is a gift to humanity.

The survivors are scattered into two main groups and they’ve got three days to get to the North side of the island and meet the resupply team.  A ticking clock, relatable stakes, these are good!  Packard’s number one priority is getting a handle on who’s alive and where, and it’s an incredibly humanizing moment: he hugs his surviving soldiers and checks to make sure they’re doing okay physically and mentally.  THEN he sits down with Randa, whips out a gun, and tells him if he doesn’t spill his guts, he’ll spill his brains. Bullet-style.

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He’s a persuasive dude!

Randa comes clean: sure they’re testing to see if Skull Island leads into the Earth’s big subterranean, kaiju-housing (hot)pockets (it does!), but they’re really here for monsters.  Randa also gives us a glimpse into why he’s so kaiju-crazy in the first place: the US Navy ship he served on was taken down by one and promptly covered up.  It’s a great Jaws-lite moment that subtly reinforces Godzilla’s presence in this shared universe. Packard is well on his way to going full Ahab, and Randa’s pretty much already there.

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You know, Ahab, from Moby Dick.

Once Packard’s informed that he’s in a kaiju movie, his group buries their dead and sets out to find his right-hand man, Major Jack Chapman. Chapman is played by Toby Kebbell, who’s on track to become a “hey it’s that guy” of the 2000s-2010s.  Most importantly for Skull Island, he was the motion-capture actor for Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: his experience there led him to double as an advisor for Terry Notary, Kong’s mo-cap actor.

Early in the movie Chapman is established as an earnest, level-headed dude who is geeked to finally get home to his young family.  His frequent letter-writing to his son inspires the squadron’s “Dear Billy” in-joke. It starts off as a way for the squad to hassle Chapman, becomes a coping mechanism for the insane conditions of the island, and finally gets a poignant reprise when Chapman is discovered dead.

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Everybody knows “upstanding young family man” is the Vietnam version of “grizzled old cop two weeks from retirement.”

So did Chapman met his grisly fate when his chopper crashed? FUCK NO! Skull Island is crawling with ginormous, freaked-out murder-monsters!  Once they hit dense jungle, Packard, Randa, and pals (Panda? Rackard?) meet a towering spider with razor-sharp bamboo shoot legs. It kills one guy so gruesomely it’s actually a stealth reference to Cannibal fucking Holocaust! (Sidebar: CH gets the “fucking” honorific because when it was released the filmmakers had to prove in court it wasn’t a snuff film, and they killed animals for real on camera)

It’s crazy how Skull Island manages to have a funnier, more adventurous tone than Godzilla ’14, but also has way more on-screen death and gore.  The way Skull Island balances it all reminds me of Raiders of the Lost Ark: you know, the swashbuckling adventure classic that ends with Nazis being electrocuted, faces melting off and heads exploding.

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URGENT REMINDER: RAIDERS FUCKING RULES

The super-spider (cleverly named “Mother Longlegs” by the promotional materials) is just the tip of the flesh-eating, slithery iceberg! Interestingly, this Skull Island eschews the dinosaurs of its 1933, 1967, and 2005 predecessors, and instead opts for a menagerie of original oddities and novel nightmares.  Two of my favorite examples are the freshwater mega-squid:

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Which I (and plenty of monster fans online) like to think is a wink to Kong’s octopus fight in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

And the huge, chilled out “Sker Buffalo”:

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I thought for sure dropping the dinos was the result of some weird legal loopholes the filmmakers had to jump through to make a Kong movie (sort of like how they never address him as “King Kong”), but I haven’t found anything that backs either of those ideas up! The legal rights to King Kong are a huge convoluted mess, but it turns out director Vogt-Roberts had a different reason for keeping dinosaurs extinct.

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It’s so he could rub his butt on their corpses.

In an interview with SFX magazine (which was reported on by GamesRadar), Vogt-Roberts explained:

“The first mandate for me was ‘No dinosaurs’… Jurassic World owns that as far as I’m concerned, and Peter Jackson’s version did such a great job with that V-Rex fight.”

While I will always love the image of King Kong uppercutting a T-Rex, I think Vogt-Roberts’ logic is sound.  The first Jurassic World was one of the biggest hits of 2015, it climaxed with a three-way dino-rumble, and Jurassic World II is slated for June of 2018. Throwing a dinosaur-smashing Kong in between them would look same-y at best and desperate at worst.  It’s also an immediate way to tell fans “We’re not trying to remake/replace King Kong ’33!” Having Kong battle strange new monsters helps him forge a new cinematic identity/world while staying true to the general spirit of his bronto-bashing debut.

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This will never not be dope.

While Packard and Randa search for the assuredly bone-zoned Chapman, we catch up with our other protagonist group, headed up by Conrad and Weaver.  They meet Skull Island’s villagers!  And hey, (thank Christ) they’re pretty cool! No cringe-inducing “ooga booga” savages like ’33 and ’62, and definitely no bloodthirsty ghouls like in in ’05:

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PJ. My man.  This… does not look good.

2017’s Skull Island gives them a name (Iwi), culture, some fun quirks, and a benevolent, if standoffish demeanor.  It probably won’t surprise you that they are easily my favorite version of Skull Island’s natives.

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They’re covered in intricate patterns of tattoos, body paint, and scars.  They look super bad-ass, and rumors say one Iwi has Mothra’s sigil on her forehead.  GUESS I BETTER GO SEE THIS 14 MORE TIMES TO FIND OUT.

One of the reasons I say these guys are benevolent is because they’ve allowed Marlow (his name is another Heart of Darkness nod!) to live with them for all these years, and he’s evolved into an unhinged jungle Santa:

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John C. Reilly released an official statement in response to me calling him an unhinged jungle Santa.

So what do the Iwi have going for them besides stoic gravitas and bitchin’ tats? They don’t talk! EVER.  And somehow over the years Marlow has learned to read their silent body language and communicate with them.  Marlow and the Iwi lead our heroes into their sacred shrine, an eerie, gorgeous interior that’s packed with forced-perspective images that reveal the history of the Iwi and their relationship with Skull Island’s more rambunctious residents.

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Mostly these two assholes!

The Dodongo-looking motherfucker on the right is a Skullcrawler, as dubbed by Marlow in one of the film’s funniest, driest exchanges.  Marlow and the Iwi explain that Kong’s a big bad-ass, but he’s worshipped as a god because he protects them from these vicious, bloodthirsty reptiles.  He went apeshit (how am I just now making that joke?) on our heroes’ choppers because he was afraid their science bombs would wake up “the big one.”

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Turns out Skull Island is just the world’s deadliest game of Don’t Wake Daddy.

The big one, Ramarak (as named in the film’s promotional materials), is the alpha Skullcrawler and killed Kong’s parents back in the day. Their deaths rendered him not just an orphan, but the last member of his species.

We find out that Kong’s still young, “still growing” (bro-bro getting swole for that Godzilla fight in 2020!), and it informs him as a character.  Terry Notary says he tried to play Kong like a “14 year old that’s trapped in the life of an adult,” and when the movie gives Kong a chance to breathe his characterization really comes through.

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As SUPER seen here.  Dude’s got the weight of godhood on his shoulders, but deep down he’s just a (really huge and lonely) kid.

It’s a fascinating, fresh (and even a little Heisei Gamera-ish) take on the character, and I’ll be interested to see how they progress it (and hopefully not just abandon it) when he comes back for Godzilla vs. Kong.  It almost makes me wish he was getting a movie between Skull Island and GvsK: I’d love to see that middle step between “overwhelmed kid taking on his parent’s legacy” and “bad enough dude to roll with Godzilla 1 on 1.”

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Skullcrawlers also killed the Japanese pilot that landed with Marlow, after the two had become fire-forged friends.  Basically the movie is making sure you know that Skullcrawlers are a bunch of major league dickheads.  It also unfairly teases the fucking awesome movie hidden within this one:

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I love the Skull Island we got… but I kinda wish we got that one instead.  What can I say, I’m a sucker for an enemy mine story, and that goes quadruple for an enemy mine story with John C. Reilly fighting weird monsters and struggling to communicate with:

  1. A Zero pilot that recently wanted to stab the complete fuck out of him with a sword
  2. Eerie, silent, tatt’d-up, monster-worshipping natives
  3. King Kong?!?!?!?!

Let’s catch up with Chapman and his wacky misadventures on Skull Island! First he sees King Kong beat the bejeezus out of that lake-Kraken and slobber it up like free sushi at a company outing:

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“Dear Billy, your  old man’s stationed at some dump called… Cranium Archipelago. It’s fucking radical here.”

Then he accidentally presses his buttcheeks up against a giant log-shaped praying mantis that has debilitating social anxiety:

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Mantis: “Oh, uh, sorry.” Chapman: “No I’m sorry, I’m the one that sat on you. Total accident! It’s a funny story, actually–” Mantis: “I gotta… I gotta go.”

This of course, is immediately followed by Chapman getting gruesomely devoured by a Skullcrawler.

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Because Skullcrawlers are douche-canoes.

Chapman’s lonely wandering gives Skull Island a chance to flesh out its world and its crazy ecosystem while granting Kong one of his few, brief (but potent!) moments of quiet reflection. And even though you might have seen Chapman’s death coming, it’s no less sad, grisly, or senseless.  Aaaaand just think how calm and level-headed Packard will be when he finds out his best guy is currently dissolving in the stomach of some prehistoric cock-knocker.

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“You’re telling me Chapman’s dead AND there’s no Bagel Bites left?”

When Conrad and Weaver tell Marlow that they need to be to the North side of the island in three days, he lets them know it’s an impossible trek by foot, but he’ll be happy to guide them up the river on his boat.  You can’t make a cinematic love letter to Apocalypse Now without a fucked-up boat ride! Marlow’s boat is a delightfully weird-looking water-jalopy cobbled together from downed aircraft parts and, oh by the way, he’ll need Weaver and Conrad’s whole crew to help him make sure the thing is actually running and sea(river?)worthy.

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This is either a behind-the-scenes shot of Marlow’s boat, or Skull Island has some charming riverside condos that nobody acknowledged.

When shit on the boat goes sideways–particularly when some schmuck gets airlifted and torn to shreds by a swarm of evil little pterodactyl-critters (a.k.a “getting Jurassic World’d”)–a small part of me was hoping for someone to pipe up with “Never get out of the boat,” but maybe that would have been too blatant of an ApocNow shout-out.

Apocalypse Now is a fantastic film, but avoid the bloated “Redux” director’s cut. Not sure about the upcoming video game adaptation though.

Both groups manage to converge at The Forbidden Zone, a wacked-out musical/comedy/fantasy/art film by Danny Elfman while he was still with Oingo Boingo a long-forgotten Kong-parents/Skullcrawler battlefield turned graveyard turned Skullcrawler hive shrouded in fog and gnarly natural gasses.

The Skullcrawler from earlier shows up, unceremoniously pukes up Chapman’s skull (ISLAND?!) and dog tags, which in hindsight is hilariously convenient.  If only the Skullcrawler could have yarfed out Chapman’s drivers license and birth certificate too! Maybe a couple bank statements? Conrad notices the dog tags, but doesn’t have a chance to tell anybody about it because now there’s a fucking Skullcrawler right there.  Guess how well our freaked-out, exhausted, injured humans do against a slew of Skullcrawlers?

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The answer is “shitty”! Surprise!

The flash on Randa’s camera spazzes out at the absolute worst possible moment, which of course gets him gulped down by the Skullcrawler.  It’s a bummer to see him go, but his death leads to a really cool, creepy, and suspenseful moment.  The Skullcrawler uses the dense fog as cover, allowing him to pop up and eat fools lightning fast, but the flash on Randa’s camera is still glitching out, lighting up from inside the monster.  Our heroes can kinda sorta track the creature through the fog, but only every few seconds. It’s darkly funny and tense!

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It’s like a better version of the part in Jurassic Park III when the Spinosaurus ate somebody’s cell phone.

Conrad gets his entertainingly over-the-top “chopping up pterodactyls with a samurai sword in slow motion inside a toxic gas plume while wearing a gas mask” moment, and Weaver finishes the fight by igniting the natural fumes and frying the fuck out of a Skullcrawler.

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“We’re still in the movie, don’t forget!”

Unsurprisingly (but very satisfyingly), Packard goes off the fucking deep end when he finds out about Chapman.  We’ve had pretty much non-stop glorious, gorgeous monster action throughout the film, but this is where the human story gets equally delicious.  I don’t say that to discount Reilly’s Marlow (he’s absolutely the heart and funny bone of Skull Island) but because Jackson’s Packard is such a real and sympathetic human villain.

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YEAH YES FUCK YEAH FUCKING FISAH:SDND:?:LKSJDFKLS

“Frazzled military bad-ass with a deeply personal vendetta against the giant monster” isn’t a brand new character concept. The human star of 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (or Godzilla X Mechagodzilla) is a heroic take on the idea, while 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla features an antagonistic (but not outright villainous) version. Neither of them stick with me like Packard though.  Jackson’s performance, the character’s thoughtfully executed arc/descent into madness, and the powerful Vietnam War setting come together and elevate Packard above similar characters that came before him.

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Pictured: A well-adjusted, happy man who definitely isn’t burned the fuck out by years of soul-shattering, pointless jungle warfare and now suddenly actual goddamned monsters. 

Chapman’s dead, but the robust munitions stockpile he was in charge of is still out there somewhere and Packard sure as shit is not leaving this hellhole without Kong’s head. Packard and the surviving members of his group go to set a trap to get revenge on Kong, the other group get back on the boat to scout ahead.

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“Actually guys I haven’t even gotten to check out the new ride at Universal Studios yet. Crazy right?”

This is when Weaver and Conrad get to have an awe-inspiring close encounter with Kong. It’s a welcome (necessary?) breather between these later pedal-to-the-metal creature-crushing action setpieces. Kong doesn’t make strong connections with our protagonists here like he has in past movies, which has its own set of pros and cons.  The main con is right there in the description: this Kong doesn’t really bond with anybody, so when Weaver, Conrad, and co. take up arms to protect him it doesn’t have that added emotional punch to it. Saving Kong is less like rescuing a beloved ally, and more like upholding a worthy but abstract cause.  The pros exist though: this establishes Kong as a larger-than-life entity. Some of his moments interacting with our heroes closely reflect Godzilla’s dealings with humans in Godzilla ’14:

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Both beasts pull the ol’ “huge impressive face in the fog” trick for a human lead!

It also helps create a unique story for this Kong.  We’ve seen the “beauty and the beast” angle used in most of Kong’s prior films, so it would have felt pretty stale to trot it out yet again.  I get the impression that this Kong regards humans (in particular “his” humans, the Iwi) as his lovable but dumb and helpless little pets that he has to protect from the horrors of Skull Island.

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Like how your cat brings you dead mice/birds because it thinks you’re a huge, bald, stupid cat that can’t hunt.

I would have liked to have seen more of Kong’s interactions with non-hostile humans, but there’s to time for that! Packard and his guys set off bombs to get Kongs attention, then light the lake he’s standing in on fire (thanks to the gasoline they dumped in there earlier).  Shades of Gorgo‘s climactic rampage! But Kong puts that big cunning brain to deadly use:

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“OH JESUS HE’S SPLASHING HE KNOWS HOW TO SPLASH FUUUUUUUUCK!!”

Kong barbecues some motherfuckers, but eventually the fire’s too much for him and he flops onto the beach temporarily KO’d. With all the hubbub, the Weaver-Conrad-Marlow crew meets back up with Packard’s group and tries one last time to convince Packard that Kong’s their best bet to survive the island. Shit’s at a fever pitch now: all the humans have each other at gunpoint; Packard’s men finally realize he’s gone off the reservation and refuse to kill Kong.  Packard of course is too far gone and refuses to back down, even after being abandoned by every living man he’s commanded.  …Then the big bad daddy Skullcrawler shows up.

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“I hate this fuckin’ island.”

Everybody gets the fuck out of there… except Packard.  Packard stays behind to blow up Kong once and for all, but gets triumphantly flattened by the King of Skull Island first.  From here out, the rest of the film is a breathless monster-brawl/chase scene combo, and it’s thrilling, over-the-top fun.

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Like so!

I absolutely will not fault Vogt-Roberts and co. for wanting to end with a spectacular bang, but a little part of me wishes Packard either served as the movie’s ultimate villain or alternatively found some small modicum of redemption.  The fact that the movie even has a human villain makes this feel a lot like a classic-era Toho movie, and that’s a big fat fucking plus in my book.

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Packard easily earns a spot on my favorite human villain list alongside these scumbags.

The grand finale chase’n’fight has a bunch of awesome moments nestled within it.  In addition to the ship-propeller-flail attack I gushed about at the top of the review, we get a gruesomely failed heroic sacrifice, Weaver blasting the Skullcrawler’s eye out like a fucking gangster, Kong saving Weaver, and plenty of balls-to-the-wall crazy action like this:

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YAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!

Just like the entire movie itself, the climax is stuffed with beautiful, dramatic imagery.  The last leg of the deathmatch takes place in a watery graveyard of jagged, rusting ships and planes.  It’s a wonderful setting for the final brawl on an aesthetic level, and it gives a Vogt-Roberts a great excuse to put a pissed off Kong in chains:

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It ups the ante at the last second, but it’s also a potent callback to similar imagery in past Kong stories.  The how and why of the chains is totally different this time, but the emotions it stirs up are the same.  What makes Skull Island’s take so damn satisfying and cathartic is that Kong doesn’t just triumphantly break his chains, he uses them to beat the shit out of the dum-dum that tied him up in the first place!

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See, the ridiculously bad-ass action-movie thing is also a stirring, inspirational character moment!

So is that it? Kong clobbers Ramarak with a propeller and calls it a night?  NOPE! Oooh, ooh, must be the ol’ T-Rex jaw-breaker then?! Another slick call-back? Close, but not quite!

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Some things are just timeless, gang!  (This is from the ’05 remake, BTW).

We get sort of teased with the jaw-breaker, but instead Kong’s arm goes right down the Skullcrawler’s throat!  Uh-oh!?  Kong’s in trouble?!  Nope again!  Kong jerks his arm free … with a huge fucking fistful of guts.

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I couldn’t find any pics, but it reminded me of this gory lunacy from Mystics in Bali.

Holy shit!  That’s a pretty psycho upgrade to the ol’ jaw-breaker and I’d say it’s on par with Godzilla’s gruesome new finisher, The Kiss of Death:

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Needless to say Ramarak is all kinds of dead, so our heroes make it to the resupply point in time and Kong makes sure everybody’s got a ride home:

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He’s normally a great host, he’s just having an off week. Come back next time and he’ll make artichoke dip, it’s delish!

For a minute there I thought that maybe our surviving heroes would get mowed down by the resupply team: some ghoulish black ops shit to cover up the monster madness (likely orchestrated by Monarch). As shocking and spooky as that would have been, it also would have been needlessly cruel. Thankfully instead of that we see Marlow finally make it home to Chicago to reunite with his wife and (now-adult) son.

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Marlow really is the heart of the movie, so seeing him finally get to settle in with a beer and a hot dog is a great capper…. EXCEPT THERE’S MORE! Yes, in the tradition of Marvel movies and all the copy-catters that have come since, Kong has a post-credits stinger that teases the greater MonsterVerse.

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Sadly it’s not Packard recruiting King Kong for The Avengers in his new life as Nick Fury.

It’s a pretty low-key affair.  Weaver and Conrad get detained and debriefed by Monarch: specifically Randa’s two nerdy associates who survived the ordeal.  Slides of cave paintings reveal that Kong isn’t the only “king” out there, and we get ancient depictions of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and Ghidorah, with a bonus Godzilla roar when it cuts to black. Pretty cool!

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Like peanut butter and (radioactive) jelly.

So that’s Skull Island!  It’s a blast! It consciously goes for fun over drama, so while it’s not a super deep or thoughtful giant monster film, it excels at what it sets out to do and makes sure to give us a couple terrific human characters along the way. Kong’s been in a lot of remakes, so it’s really refreshing to see him star in a brand new story again.

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Skull Island won’t achieve immortal classic status like the ’33 original, but it has some incredibly bold visuals and is absolutely a worthy addition to the kanon.

Skull Island’s doing well with critics and audiences: it’s currently rocking a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and held the number one spot in the box office on its opening week. I point this out mostly because it’s exciting to know that the future of Legendary’s planned MonsterVerse is bright and on-track.  Balancing an original, stand-alone story with shared-continuity, multi-movie universe building is a tricky feat that even Marvel doesn’t always get right.

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My plea to blockbuster filmmakers: please please please PLEASE shoot on location whenever possible. This movie is fucking gorgeous.

This review is crazy long, so let’s do a behind-the-scenes lightning round!

At first I flipped a shit because I thought the emblem on the back of Marlow’s jacket was a veiled Dr. Steve Brule reference:

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But apparently it’s intended as a reference to Kaneda’s jacket in Akira:

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I’m holding out hope that it’s an intentional dual-reference.

Before Vogt-Roberts landed the director’s seat, Legendary offered the job to Attack the Block‘s Joe Cornish (while Peter Jackson suggested they grab Guillermo del Toro for it).

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Pro-tip: Attack the Block is dope! Bonus, pre-Star Wars, pre-Pacific Rim John Boyega!

Michael Keaton was initially offered the role of Marlow and J.K. Simmons was offered Packard, but both declined due to their schedules.  I think both of them could have torn shit up in this movie, but at this point I can’t imagine anyone besides John C. Reilly and Sam Jackson in those roles.

Wonder how Vogt-Roberts cooked up the look of the Skullcrawlers?  He started with the “two-legged” lizard glimpsed in the log-bridge scene from the original ’33 Kong:

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It’s pretty hard to spot in stills, so here’s a highlighted version (on the right)

Two-legged is in quotation marks because it may not actually be two-legged: the frame cuts off the bottom half of the creature, making it look like a whacked-out reptilian biped.  With that built-in weirdness and history with the franchise, I love that it was used as the starting point for Skull Island’s new killer critter.  The other main ingredients for Skullcrawler soufflé come from Vogt-Roberts’ love of Japanese anime and video games:

Top left: No-Face, Spirited Away, top right: Cubone, Pokemon, bottom: Sachiel, Neon Genesis Evangelion

Skull-faced monsters seem to be a recurring thing in Japan?  No-Face’s horrifying appetite (and projectile vomiting!) definitely lives on through the Skullcrawlers’ insatiable hunger.

Skull Island was originally set to have a very different opening scene and post-credits stinger. Earlier drafts of the film kicked off with two enemy WWII squads duking it out on the Island, only to be interrupted by a traditional looking, 15-30ft. Kong-ape… that the soldiers would immediately gun down brutally.

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“In the arms of the angel…”

The slain “mini” Kong would then be enthusiastically avenged by a 100 ft. tall relative.  I respect the audacity of it, but taking such a bitter shit on classic-style Kong would’ve made a horrible first impression and came off as desperate.

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Like when the fucking guy in Laserblast blows up a sign with the Star Wars logo painted on it for no reason whatsoever.

In a movie as wild and over-the-top as Kong: Skull Island, it’s funny to think there was still some tasteful restraint applied. The alternate post-credits scene had our surviving heroes schlep out to sea with Monarch to witness Godzilla out there Godzilling.  That one got the ax when Vogt-Roberts pointed out that nobody was supposed to have seen G-money since the 50s… and the effects money that would have gone to rendering Godzilla got funneled into more monstery mayhem for Skull Island!

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Kong approves of tight continuity and smart budgeting!

Kong: Skull Island has its hiccups, and won’t join the ranks of King Kong ’33 or Gojira, but that’s never what it set out to do. Skull Island is freaky, frantic fun: an effervescent blast of joyfully brutal jungle insanity that revamps Kong for a new age of monster movie mayhem without abandoning his surprising humanity. Who doesn’t love a good Return of the King?

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10 thoughts on “Don’t be a schlong, check out Kong!

  1. What do you mean “in this continuity, Skull Island’s in the South Pacific”? It’s always been in the South Pacific. 1933, 1976, probably 2005 too since it apes the original. Faro and Mondo Islands, of course, were in the South Pacific so this isn’t something new. 1976 even makes a point to show you they start out in Singapore (the South Pacific) to head off to the island.

    Did you happen to notice that “Skull Island” more or less opens with the end of the 1976 film but goes “Huh-uh.”

    Do you also think that Kong eating the octopus after killing it is a reference to Tsuburaya eating the octopus after filming its scenes in KKvsG?

    Who is that in the Dodongo link above? Is that what the Zelda folks are saying is Dodongo? If it’s not “Ultraman”, Dodongo looks like THIS, dammit: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/zelda/images/d/d1/Dodongo_2_LoZ.png/revision/latest?cb=20130606211945&path-prefix=fr

    • It’s funny you mention the sentence about the Skull Island being in the South Pacific: every time I looked at that thing during proofreading I thought “that could probably get cut or be clearer” but I figured “what the hell, I’ll leave it just in case.” It’s a poorly worded sentence meant to get across that “this time the island, which is in the South Pacific, is protected by a perpetual hurricane.”

      That said, I never really gave any thought to where the island was located in past incarnations. The fact that prior movies had Denham and friends carting Kong’s KO’d ass from the South Pacific to NYC via boat is *NUTS*. That’s such a long boat ride! That’s such a long time for poor Kong to be unconscious! Did they drag a gigantic knocked out gorilla through the Panama Canal?

      Hahaha, the Dodongo wars continue! I love all versions I’ve seen so far!

      • That thought that you were trying to convey did occur to me but I just went “Eh, screw it. I’ll say something anyway. What are the chances, right?” Even money.

        I think with the original “King Kong”, it’s a fantasy. You’re not supposed to think that heavily about it. Like Kong can scale the Empire State Building, but can’t climb that wall? What, was it coated in KY Jelly? You start throwing logic at it and it falls apart.

        There, at one point, was an idea for a third Kong movie that was about the trip back to New York from Skull Island where the Venture encounters monsters somehow and have to unchain Kong to save themselves. So the fact that an entire movie could be set in that time frame would give one pause…

      • Holy shit, all these years I just accepted the “short” boat trip AND the “unclimbable” wall without a second thought! When I like (or even just get engrossed in) a movie, it can get away with so much.

        I love that concept for a Kong flick! You’d have a nice tense moment where the human leads debate waking him up and setting him loose… maybe we’ll get something like that in Godzilla vs. Kong?

  2. I think that is now 13 keyboards you owe me… you’d think I’d learn not to read your blog with a frosty cold adult beverage in hand! Hilarious!

    • My first thought is “Oh shit, sorry about your keyboards!” but at the same time I’m really proud of myself for consistently cranking out keyboard-ruiners. Thanks for reading!

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  5. I know I’m hella late with this but I just saw Skull Island and MY GOD THAT POST CREDITS SCENE MY BODY ISN’T READY FOR 2019.

    The movie is awwesome, loads of little references to classic kaiju and monster movies, the wooden wall referencing King Kong vs Godzilla, Kong fighting a giant octopus referencing the same, two important (though sidelined) japanese characters, funky pacific islanders, Kong escaping from chains referencing the original King Kong, Kong rescuing a blond chick (wouldn’t be Kong without it!), and Kong attempting his trademark jaw-breaker finishing move (followed by a kickass new gut-removal move!). Even the beginning with John Goodman trying to fund his expedition was lifted strait from a 55s or 60s era monster movie.

    This film was so silly and perfect. It’s like a Showa era movie on a Hollywood budget, I don’t think I need to explain why that’s amazing.

    Great review bruh, keep at it! Us kaiju-heads need material between movies 🙂

    • Better late than never! Thanks for reading!

      This movie really does pull off the insane feat of being both a reverent love letter to the genre AND a fresh new take on a classic character WITHOUT betraying the core of what makes the character so beloved in the first place. It’s impressive as hell, and I really hope it’s an indicator of what we’ll see in future MonsterVerse films.

      I really love having a platform to ramble endlessly about monster movies. I think it’s just good for my brain and soul. The fact that it actually connects with people is a huge deal.

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